Coronavirus Outbreak in Iran
What Consequences for an already Isolated Country?

by Maged Srour

When the outbreak of Coronavirus (Covid-19) began to worry China in late 2019, Iranian authorities reassured their citizens that there was no risk of contagion to the Islamic Republic. [1] Moreover, Tehran decided to export supplies of domestically produced hospital masks to China, depleting Iranian supplies while other countries were quietly stockpiling their own. Today, these actions appear as bitter irony and a self-inflicted wound—Iran is among the countries with the highest number of infections and deaths from Covid-19 in the world after China and it desperately needs medical equipment to contain the outbreak. It is clear that Iran underestimated the danger posed by this virus.

 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the data as of 06 March indicates that Iran has over 2300 cases of infections and 92 deaths.[2] What is more concerning, according to international health experts, is how Tehran is managing the emergency. According to many sources, Iran is understating the true extent of the contagion, probably because it will be viewed by an already cagey regime as a failure its enemies could exploit.

 

When a Secretive State Deals with a Virus Outbreak Despite being one of the most active outbreaks worldwide, the Iranian chapter is being managed by the authorities with confusion especially as they seem as worried about controlling information as they are about controlling the virus; according to dozens of Iranian medical workers who all spoke to the media in the past few days on condition of anonymity because of the threats received from security agents.[3] Iran’s cyber police arrested 24 people ‘accused of spreading rumours online and inciting panic about the Coronavirus,’ fuelling a climate of fear of being arrested, which adds to the fear of contracting the virus.

 

According to various sources, security agents are stationed in hospitals and forbid staff members from disclosing any information about fatalities, patients or shortages related to the Covid-19. Tehran also announced the dispatch of 300,000 plain-clothes Basij militiamen who will be going to houses and screen residents while disinfecting their homes.[4] Iranian doctors have expressed deep concern over this procedure: untrained militiamen are more likely to spread the virus than to contain it.

In a country which recently saw a spike in social tensions and hostility towards authorities, with protests in recent months, the decision to deploy hundreds of thousands of security agents and send them to inspect resident’s homes is likely to create an even more tense climate.

 

Coronavirus in the Middle East: Political Consequences of the Iranian Outbreak
 

In a climate of global fear, at the regional level, countries in the Middle East are forced to face one of the most active outbreaks – the Iranian one – which, in addition to the health consequences, will have, according to many analysts, huge economic and political repercussions. Concerned by the possible spread of the virus from Iran, regional countries have been taking precautionary measures. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), after suspending flights to and from Iran, announced coordinated procedures with the Islamic Republic to operate flights to evacuate Iranian visitors to the UAE and thus return them to Iran. Qatar, where the first cases were recorded, also decided to evacuate all its citizens who were in Iran and subject them to a fourteen-day quarantine. Iraq decided to close the border with the Islamic Republic.

 

Iran risks further diplomatic isolation. Tehran is already in a tenuous regional and international position. In neighbouring Iraq, people have been protesting Iran’s presence for months and the closure of the borders between the two countries could become an element of political confrontation  once the corona-crisis dies down. Similarly in Lebanon, where the government (and its Hezbollah support mechanism) is politically aligned to Tehran, the air-link stoppage could favour those political forces pushing for distance — if not severing altogether — relations with Iran. Substantially, the Shiite axis which has been built with difficulty (and success) by Tehran in recent years, could be significantly compromised due to the actions taken against the Coronavirus’ outbreak. The fear of the epidemic could therefore break the so-called “Shiite crescent” which was pursued by Quds Force former General Qassem Soleimani. In the long term, regional opponents of the Islamic Republic could therefore take advantage of this moment to further isolate Iran. This health crisis could bring, along with infected people and deaths, also many strategic and political consequences.

 

Economic Consequences: The Impact on Tourism

 

Finally, coronavirus has shaken financial markets around the world and, among the most affected sectors, is tourism. The spread of Covid-19 will cost international tourism at least $22 billion (USD) due to a drop in spending by Chinese tourists, the head of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) announced.[5] This aspect of the epidemic will likely affect a significant number of countries since Chinese tourists, according to WTTC, spend considerable amounts when travelling and are among the most active travellers. In Iran, the crisis due to the spread of Covid-19 in the country could not have come at a worse time. The last month of the Persian calendar, which ends on 21 March, is usually the most important for Iran’s tourism sector as it culminates in Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Festivities are usually celebrated with a national two-week holiday, with rituals, family gatherings and travel. Iran’s tourism industry already faced a significant downturn in recent years, largely due to tensions with the West and the United States in particular. Chinese tourism had remained strong despite sanctions, but coronavirus changed that.

 

Possible Outcomes

Predictions regarding the spread, containment and eradication of the coronavirus are impossibleat the moment. A vaccine has not yet been developed and many countries are still struggling to contain local contagion. However, what experts do agree on is that this situation is already having a serious impact on the world economy.[6] For Iran, already economically fragile because of mismanagement, over-spending on foreign conflicts (re: Syria, Iraq and Yemen) coupled with US sanctions and increasing diplomatic isolation, a painful coup de grade is certainly in the cards.

Notes

[1]'Iran clerics encourage superstition, as public gripped by Coronavirus panic', in Radio Farda, 26 February 2020, https://bit.ly/2TrTRPX.

[2]'Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) – Situation Report-45', The World Health Organization, 5 March 2020, https://bit.ly/2PTqBQ3

[3]Fassihi F. and Kirkpatrick D., 'Iran's Coronavirus response: pride, paranoia, secrecy, chaos', in The New York Times, 3 March 2020, https://nyti.ms/3ayxluu.

[4]'Iran to use phone checks for Coronavirus, school closure extended', in The Jerusalem Post, 5 March 2020, https://bit.ly/2TM9m4g.

[5]'COVID-19 to cost world tourism no less than $22 billion: WTTC', in Tehran Times, 28 February 2020, https://bit.ly/32XC46l.

[6]Bayly L., 'Federal Reserve cuts interest rate by half a point to address coronavirus slowdown', in NBC News, 3 March 2020, https://nbcnews.to/38v7S3G.

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